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The Vault - Natural History Museum London

Last Updated: 19th Oct 2017

By Jolyon & Katya Ralph

I've just returned from the launch party of the new permanent gallery at the Natural History Museum called "The Vault".

Alan Hart, curator of Mineralogy (and described by one newspaper recently as 'the king of bling') at the entrance to 'The Vault'


For those of you who know the museum, this replaces the meteorite gallery that used to be at the far end of the systematic mineral gallery. I was invited along with lots of people who are rich, famous, or both, to view the new gallery, and to cast my critical eye over it.

The problem with mineral displays in museums is that there is always some element of compromise. Add to this that several times, museum staff, in museums around the world, have confided to me that they have had to fight against designers and marketing people, rather than truly cooperate with them, as their aims for the displays were are complete odds with the curatorial staff. With this in mind, I was cautious about what to expect.

The Launch Party - people had to queue to view the gallery


The invited mix of celebrities, media people, curatorial staff and mineral dealers (I don't really fit into any of those categories, and there was only one celebrity I actually recognised) descended on the museum at 7pm for an after-hours opportunity to view the new gallery, eat and drink. As I had to stay sober and alert to write this review when I got home, I declined the free alcohol and stayed to the cranberry juice. And not only that, I had to wear a suit.

Mike Rumsey from the mineralogy department (right) and myself


But enough about the party, you want to know about the gallery. Is it any good? The answer to that is simple. It's excellent. For once, it seems everyone from the curators to the designers to the PR and marketing people have actually worked together to create something that works well. The space is well designed, and not over-crowded with minerals. The walls are light, the cabinets are modern and well placed. The lighting is excellent and the specimens are well chosen. Here are some views of the displays:

Five of the most important specimens are displayed in individual cabinets. These include a large mars meteorite, the La trobe crystalline gold and the 'Devonshire Emerald'. Admiring the specimens are Robin Rennie (Crystal Classics) and her partner Chris


The gem displays in the center of the area. Well designed and well lit.


Particular praise has to go to the labelling. With "The Vault", Alan and his team have decided that they need to take a small number of exceptional specimens and tell their stories. Some are exceptional specimens in their own right, and some are exceptional because of their stories. Here are some examples of specimens on display and the descriptive labelling.

Diamonds in Matrix next to diamond jewelery.


Mould of the Koh-i-noor Diamond, and replicas of this famous diamond before and after Prince Albert had it recut in 1851


An incredible Morganite and cut stones


More gem minerals on display, cut and natural specimens


Sapphire and Ruby


Note that none of the minerals have a chemical formula listed with them. I don't, personally, think that is a problem. The gallery is right next to the systematic gallery, where anyone curious can find out about all these minerals and what they are (in fact, there is a handy index poster on the wall near the entrance to The Vault that will allow anyone wanting information on a mineral to home-in on the correct cabinet without needing to know about the mineral's chemistry). What is more important is the display of locality names, and these are given with every specimen where it is known.

Purists might also argue that the use of varietal names such as "Ruby" is not mineralogically correct. But then, this is a collection of gem minerals, and not using commonly-known gem names in a display like this would be just as wrong as a zoo only putting scientific latin names of animals on the animal pens. But they do put "Corundum, variety Ruby" underneath the name, just to be clear what it is.

One of the highlights for those interested in gemology in particular is the Aurora collection of 296 coloured diamonds (totalling over 267 carats), loaned to the museum by Alan Bronstein and Harry Rodman, who built this over 25 years of collecting. The collection is beautifully displayed, this photo doesn't really do it justice:

The Aurora Diamond collection


But the most fantastic part of this is that the display switches between natural light and ultraviolet as you stand and watch it - and this has none of your old fashioned dark boxes with stark UV tubes, I don't know how the UV lighting is done, but the transition is smooth, the UV light is well hidden, and strong enough to be perfectly visible in the bright surroundings of the room.

A very shaky photo (no tripod, sorry) of the diamonds fluorescing under UV light


As I said, the display is not just about the best minerals and gems, it's also about the specimens with the most interesting stories - and few can beat the full story of this cursed Amethyst! Mike Rumsey has given a very entertaining talk to our local mineral club about the history of this piece, and the full history is very much more interesting and dramatic than the summary underneath the item can do justice to.

The Cursed Amethyst


So, I like the lighting, I like the labelling, I like the display area, and I even like the cut gems. What about the minerals? Well, what mineral display would be complete without a piece of the most recognised modern classic (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) mineral there is - Sweet Home Mine Rhodochrosite. And here it is, with the man responsible for bringing the specimens to the surface - Bryan Lees, who was in town for the opening:

Bryan Lees (Collector's Edge minerals) standing next to one of his Sweet Home Rhodochrosites, now on display in 'The Vault'


The Vault figures several specimens that have been loaned by private collectors, which is an excellent way for private collectors to share their best specimens with the world. Amongst these were a group of fantastic gold specimens, including a huge wire gold from Venezuela (which looks like a Kongsberg Silver, but in gold). Unfortunately my photo of that specimen suffered from the dreaded blur (strangely, those photos that were taken as I stood opposite the cursed amethyst didn't come out very well!), but here is a picture of it along with video commentary that appears on demand on something that looks like a giant iPod stuck to the wall.

Ian Bruce (Crystal Classics) talking on recorded video


We didn't need to use it because we had all these people around us to ask, but for those who want to learn more about the specimens, the video commentary looks like an excellent idea.

Here are some more of the gold specimens loaned from private collectors:

Three crystalline golds about 6cm tall


Hope's Nose, Devon gold. about 9cm across


And from the Chatsworth Collection, comes the incredible "Devonshire Emerald", which weighs in at an impressive 1,384 carats, and is about 6cm tall. This was obtained by the sixth Duke of Devonshire from Emperor Dom Pedro I of Brazil in or around 1831. It was displayed prominently at the Great Exhibition in London, in 1851.

Having specimens loaned from private collectors and other institutions helps the museum keep their displays fresh, showing new things and having the potential to display things they would have difficulty in affording with their acquisition budget. But, of course, the museum has some fantastic treasures of its own, and here are a couple of my favourites on display.

Enormous Platinum nugget and a huge South African Sperrylite crystal - nearly 3cm across!


But, the star of the show, in my mind, is this specimen.

The Siderite "Box" epimorph, Virtuous Lady Mine, Devon


And for all the right reasons. Firstly, it's a true British classic mineral (and, other than the Hope's Nose gold, and a fabulous Bournonite, there weren't any other British minerals I saw). Secondly, it's aesthetic in its own right, a perfect hollow cube with some sharp, paper-white quartz crystals growing inside, and thirdly, it has a mystery attached - what environment could have possibly caused Fluorite to dissolve leaving the (far less stable) Siderite coating it unharmed? In a vault full of gem specimens, it's delightful to see such a perfectly chosen specimen to really show people why minerals are so fascinating.

So. I was truly delighted with the new display room, and Alan and his team can hopefully have a small rest before they start on the renovation of the main systematic galleries (which have remained untouched since I was a child). I, along with many people, have been petrified of the idea of change to the sacred national systematic collection. But, assuming the same people who put 'The Vault' together are involved in the renovation, I truly think we can expect something great.

And, after a successful launch party, Alan has every right to look pleased with himself, especially when "The King of Bling" meets "The Queen" (AKA Dame Helen Mirren)

Alan Hart, Curator of Minerals, Natural History Museum, and Helen Mirren. And no, the stones on his tie are not real




This article is linked to the following museum: Natural History Museum (London)




Article has been viewed at least 33452 times.

Comments

Thany you Jolyon for bringing this launch to us so quickly, I loved the diamonds but found my xmas pressie in the Morganite :0) Out of interest did any of the Celeb's collect ?

Debbie Woolf
3rd Dec 2007 2:06am
The morganite is great, isn't it? I don't know if any of the celebrities collect - I assume they were more likely there for the free drink!


Jolyon & Katya Ralph
3rd Dec 2007 1:42pm
The morganite is huge. Large cabinet size. Don't have the exact dimensions.

Forgot to mention, but in the first photo you can see Janet Street-Porter in the background (a UK celeb for those who don't know, and I obviously didn't because I didn't notice this at the time!)

Jolyon & Katya Ralph
6th Dec 2007 7:31pm
Jolyon, you saying you never watched her in 'I'm a celebrity, get me out of here' tut-tut :0)

Debbie Woolf
11th Dec 2007 4:10am
Am I missing the picture of the Devonshire Emerald?

Mike Salotti
4th Feb 2008 8:52pm

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